August 30, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

by Vadim Rizov

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Many musician biopics make cripplingly guilt-inducing childhood memories the motivating force for everything the subject does: in Ray, all you needed to know about Ray Charles was that he saw his brother drown before going blind. In Walk the Line, Johnny Cash's problems were his cold-hearted dad and pill-popping, which naturally led to singing at Folsom Prison. The new Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life posits that Serge Gainsbourg (played here by Eric Elmosnino)—beloved, semi-institutionalized songwriter/provocateur for whose death France lowered its flags while then-President François Mitterand delivered a eulogy—was primarily spurred on by a freaky-looking Jewish creature known as La Gueule that followed him and made dramatic speeches. The bow-legged, hook-nosed, long-nailed leering id is incarnated by Doug Jones, perhaps best known as Hellboy's sarcastic fishman companion Abe Sapien. That Jones here is wearing prosthetics made by the same special effects team that also costumed him for Pan's Labyrinth says a lot about the anything-goes opening of A Heroic Life, a thinly connected memoir propelled by hallucinatory bursts of animation, dialogues with the monster, and other grotesque appearances.

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Gainsbourg's adolescence is macabre without being scary or becoming overly cute. An early scene sees young Serge asking a girl on the beach if he can hold her hand. "No, you're too ugly," she replies, setting a clear goal in mind: how to get women while being homely. La Gueule is a repellant but self-confident role model, proving you can get away with anything as long as you do it with unblinking verve. (It's a more flattering image of his self-loathing than his first imaginary companion, a giant toddling head.) Before puberty, Gainsbourg gets a model to disrobe after hours behind the teacher's back, and draws nudes for classmates and instructors while shipped away to the countryside to evade the Nazis. After the war he tries to paint, but the goony alter-ego returns, burns his work, and instructs him to start writing songs.

Gainsbourg's still an enormously popular figure in France, and the movie assumes a fair degree of familiarity with his life, so it'd be best to know a few biographical high points and hear a few songs before you go if you're not already familiar with either. While Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life discreetly eliminates some of his grosser public provocations, mostly committed on French '80s television (his rabble-rousing 1985 single "Lemon Incest," or telling Whitney Houston he wanted to fuck her on a talk show), it's not a total valorization, depicting some his bad behavior towards wife and kids. Still, director Joann Sfar's film worships the myth, if not the man, which isn't a terrible decision: his life story is awfully fun if you eliminate the heavy drinking, death at age 62, public degeneration, etc.

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

One of Gainsbourg's first big splashes came in 1966 from two big singles he wrote for yé-yé singer France Gall, "Baby Pop" and "Les Sucettes." The former's splashy horns are pleasantly martial, while the latter is a seemingly innocuous ballad. One of the benefits of seeing the film, if you've never bothered to look up the lyrics, is finally learning, at extensively subtitled length, why his work frequently attracted such a furor: "Baby Pop," broken down, is as angry as Pulp's "Common People," with a young woman contemplating a bleak future ("The few pennies you'll earn take hard work," "You'll end up getting married against your will"). Gall couldn't miss the anger there, but she had no idea that "Les Sucettes" is not merely about a girl licking aniseed lollipops, not even when giant phallic suckers showed up to sway on the set of a promotional video.

Furious for years, Gall eventually said in 2004 that she wasn't mad at the songwriter anymore because he was hard to get mad at; the movie makes it similarly hard, albeit by omitting hurtful moments or serious betrayals of others' confidence. (The only people he pranks or offends here are himself and anti-Semites.) But the movie does include this career milestone in compressed form: both songs are heard partially in one scene depicting Gall and her temporary Svengali meeting under her father's watchful and greedy eye. More time is devoted to Gainsbourg simply playing and singing duets with his muses in the privacy of his apartment or house: "Comic Strip" and "Bonnie and Clyde" with Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta), "Je t'Aime Moi Non Plus" with British model/actress Jane Birkin (the late Lucy Gordon). If you know the songs, the renditions are refreshingly sincere: songwriter and singer working out the kinks for fun, tempering the often-sardonic/salacious content.

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

As Gainsbourg's public profile rises, he banishes La Gueule and the story becomes more straightforward, hitting the high points of his recorded career. To keep viewers enjoyably off-balance, years are elided with no notice, as children arrive and wives leave with little warning. The exception is Birkin, who arrives to co-star in 1969's Slogan. She's not the unlikely leading man's first choice (he fumes that he wanted Marisa Berenson instead), but Gordon's star impersonation is unnervingly convincing and scene-stealing. As she fades out, Gainsbourg's final alcoholic years slam together in a whir of drunken stumbling, a brief hallucination that he has the head of a cabbage, and—strangest of all—sees him recording a reggae album in 1979, Aux Armes et Caetera. The title track ("La Marseillaise" with a Jamaican makeover) inspired death threats and angry mobs (depicted) as well as the charge from French journalist/essayist Michel Droit that the singer could be charged with provoking anti-Semitism—a strikingly ugly moment the film also leaves out.

The film sticks to the professional and romantic highlights, plus the more endearing of Gainsbourg's public embarrassments, retaining speed and momentum by juxtaposing many of the musician's strangest, most unexpected acts at lightning speed. The contempt for explanations or context helps, keeping the film off center. If the film title's adjective "heroic" seems overblown on the basis of the evidence created, for Sfar (a cartoonist who's declared admiration for his subject as a prominent French Jewish cultural figure), Gainsbourg seems to matter most as an icon who never bored the public. This sex-dazed figure and drunken anti-establishment warrior is something of a Hemingway-esque caricature, hunting for notoriety rather than big game. This Gainsbourg isn't necessarily always the one of public record, but he's the one of the albums: a compelling cartoon of outsized dimensions, too entertaining to get upset with.

Posted by ahillis at 12:16 PM | Comments (1)

August 26, 2011

Romania-mania

by Steve Dollar

Tales from the Golden Age

Cinephiles scoping for the next new wave to surf discovered a tidal surge in the past decade, as a new generation of Romanian filmmakers—who came of age during the waning years of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s corrupt and withering regime—began to give that era its own, idiosyncratic narrative. Directors such as Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest) and Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), with varying degrees of mordant humor, created vivid, absurdist anatomies of that terminal phase of what official jargon called “the golden age.” If previous “waves” of Eastern European cinema favored the surreal or the allegorical as a way to say what was not allowed to be said, these artists who emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc parlayed at once a perverse nostalgia for the bad old days and the naked realism to evoke their often desperate scrubbiness. And often enough, with an amber glow of affection for the screwed-up order of things.

Tales from the Golden Age celebrates that world. Although the tone is markedly lighter than his harrowing black-market abortion thriller 4 Months, Mungiu masterminds the omnibus as writer, producer and one of five directors on its six episodes, which dramatize several “urban myths” from the years immediately preceding Ceauşescu’s death in 1989. The segments skew towards rural themes, as if Green Acres transpired under totalitarianism, with titles like “The Legend of the Chicken Driver” nearly suggestive of a Red Sovine trucker ballad. The city/country divide and rampant livestock gags supply a useful thread of universality, and handy premises for those “wait for it... wait for it... here it comes” punchlines. That the gags are more existential than blatantly rib-tickling is a bonus of the filmmakers’ sensibilities, which skews these anecdotes towards satirical undoings of party orthodoxy and folkwise apocrypha illustrating the foibles of human nature.

Tales from the Golden Age

“Make them white,” barks a party official to the good citizens of a remote village the opening segment, The Legend of the Official Visit. He’s referring to the all-too-grey pigeons offered up as a potential avian salute to a state muckety-muck who has put the hayseed outpost on the route of his drive-by procession. Nature’s best just won’t do. As the petit autocrat (Emanuel Parvu) bosses everyone around, he spies a sad amusement park just installed for an annual carnival. The carousel must go, he declares. But when an afternoon feast for the self-congratulatory advance party veers toward a drunken debauch, circumstances take a turn. The pompous party inspector, suddenly in a giddy mood, leads everyone onto the carousel, which goes whizzing into the air. Unfortunately, the elderly operator has taken the command that “everyone must ride” as an order, leaving no one at the controls when motion sickness erupts.

The segments aren’t credited, but Mungiu and his associates—Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, Constantin Popescu and Ioana Uricaru—collaborate so closely that the seams don’t show. The animal gags peak in The Greedy Policeman, a terrific Christmas story for people who hate Christmas stories, in which the family of the titular cop leans about the perils of the black market. Their yearning for Yuletide pork unexpectedly lands them a real, live snorting pig, occupying a cramped kitchen and confounding efforts to slaughter it. They don’t want to bludgeon it to death, fearful the squeals will alert the neighbors to their porcine contraband. So they use oven gas instead... and, well, more than Arnold Ziffel winds up barbecued.

Tales from the Golden Age

Played much more subtly, the engagingly low-key The Legend of the Air Sellers posits a meet-cute flirtation between teenage student Crina (Diana Cavallioti) and would-be government health operative Bughi (Radu Iacoban). The handsome stranger shows up at her door in a grim apartment block insisting on a tap water sample. In fact, he’s hustling guileless comrades out of their empty bottle deposits. Only in the Romanian ‘80s would this ruse not be considered a bid for chump change. Suspicious, and smitten, Crina tracks Bughi down to a party at a nearby apartment where a group of teenagers is watching Bonnie and Clyde on a crummy TV. Inspired, she woos Bughi’s affection by hatching an ambitious plan to boost earnings. This time, they’ll solicit bottles filled with air. And take down whole buildings by conniving the superintendents into collecting the goods.

Nothing, of course, ever goes as planned. The subterfuge, and all-to-the-point revelation in the final twist, stamps this as a comic flipside to the tense shadowplay of 4 Months, right down to a climactic/anticlimactic chase scene and the deadpan one-liners. The national spirit of glorious dysfunction is epidemic in the Golden Age, though one suspects the film’s relatively upbeat vibe is as much a case of selective memory as a reflection on smiling through an apocalypse.

[Tales From the Golden Age is now playing at the IFC Center in NYC.]

Posted by ahillis at 12:42 PM

August 23, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: House of Bamboo

by Vadim Rizov

House of Bamboo

The best—or least most characteristically forceful—Samuel Fuller movies veer excitedly from one violent moment and camera movement to the next, like someone justifiably punching you in the face. 1955's House of Bamboo is a calmer production. Fuller novices shouldn't start here: for a introduction to the two-fisted director's earlier work, try on the sleazy Cold War noir Pickup on South Street (made two films before this) or 1957's Forty Guns, a widescreen Western that often accelerates to warp speed. House of Bamboo has patches of standard-issue narrative tissue to get through, and the camera's less mobile and impulsive than usual. Compared with, say, 1952's Park Row, in which Fuller tracks so fast the camera gets wobbly out of sheer urgency (speed trumps thought), Bamboo is more tableaux-bound.

House of Bamboo Robert Stack is Eddie Spanier, an American who arrives in Tokyo and promptly starts shaking down pachinko parlor managers to get some seed money. Clad in an ill-fitting raincoat and seemingly sweating alcohol out of his pores, Eddie marches in with minimal English, demands to see the "#1 boss" and shakes him vigorously. Doing this twice lands him in hot water with Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), who's already established his own crime base and doesn't want competition from any other ex-pats. Impressed by Eddie's sheer loutish verve, Sandy adds him to his gang of ex-GI's who still think like military men: erratic behavior is "battle fatigue" and anyone wounded during a heist is shot to avoid giving out information during interrogations. In the one successful robbery shown, the team uses smoke bombs to cover their escape, the landscape looking nothing so much as a firebombed village.

House of Bamboo The exteriors of House of Bamboo were shot on location, making it the first Hollywood production shot in Japan. (An annotation of the locales and inaccuracies can be found here.) Leigh Harline's score is used sparingly to underline the film's documentary appeal. Rendered in expensive, vibrant Cinemascope that wasn't yet a realistic option for the financially embattled Japanese film industry, Bamboo is as sharp a sketch of pre-neon Tokyo as it is a bitter noir. At one point, Eddie rudely marches through a kabuki rehearsal, an excuse for Fuller to respectfully capture the stylized actors and ignore the unpleasant protagonist.

Eddie turns out to be an undercover agent of sorts, though he's just as rigid and unappealing on the side of the law as he is as a low-level thug. "My attitude towards the Stack character—towards any character in any picture I do—depends on the question, 'Is he doing an unnecessary job?'" Fuller noted in an interview during the '70s. "He is. So I can portray him as the lowest sort of double-crosser." Like Richard Widmark in Pickup (a pickpocket who does the right thing out of venal and vengeful motives, rather than for the sake of American values), Eddie's commitment to justice is less convincing than the moments where he resorts to violence as communication.

House of Bamboo

Cops and robbers are the main characters, but the fallout of their violence on civilians leaves more of an impact. During the climactic shoot-out, Sandy faces off against everyone else, with the mob boss perched on a gigantic wooden wheel in an amusement park. The area has to be quickly cleared by the police to hunt him down, and in keeping with the military allusions, the crowd looks to be dispersing in avoidance of an air raid. Up top, the camera shakes, with the leads clearly on top of a real and mildly dangerous structure revolving on a tilted axis, their bullets making the vicinity unsafe for all others until they're done. House of Bamboo looks back in anger, showing how violence displaces the innocent once again.

[The House of Bamboo screens at NYC's Film Forum from Aug. 26 – Sep. 1.]

Posted by ahillis at 11:49 AM

August 20, 2011

Clowntime Is Over

by Steve Dollar

The Last Circus

Think clowns are funny? Do you? They're not funny at all. They are brutal fucking monsters. Behind the pancake makeup and the exaggerated swoosh of funhouse red they call lips, these circus jesters might as well be rapists, serial killers, terrorists—every peal of laughter they provoke from a delighted child a hollow lie. At least, that's how it is in The Last Circus, which testifies long and loud that director Álex de la Iglesia was likely molested by one of these bulbous nosed, smiley-faced nightmares as a small boy. If not, well, he's just molested us.

The Last Circus

This twisted historical drama, which opened this weekend in New York, certainly has the vibe of a dark, inchoate fairy tale, the telling of which guarantees emotional scar tissue. (And a rollicking, if tragic, good time.) Its Spanish title, Balada triste de trompetaA Sad Trumpet Ballad—evokes a lilting, wistful tone. But there's hardly anything nostalgic in its near-riotous narrative. To some degree akin to Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, the film conflates childhood trauma/coming of age with the terrible events of the Spanish Civil War. A shy, bespectacled boy named Javier watches in terror as his father, a clown like his father before him, is involuntarily conscripted—mid-performance—into the good fight. That he is wearing a woman's wig and frock seems not to matter in the least. In fact, as they plunge headlong into slaughter, the bizarre sight of a cross-dressing Bozo whacking heads with a machete is a huge bonus. Alas, Ronald McDeath is imprisoned by Franco's army, and becomes a figure of torment for a certain general. Years later, Javier goes to see his father in prison, and gets this advice: "Revenge... revenge will make you feel better."

The Last Circus

The seed planted, Javier takes fateful action. Decades pass, and as a grown man in 1973 (played by Carlos Areces) he's taken up the family profession. A chubby, passive, perpetual "nice guy," with giant eyeglasses framing a cherub’s face frozen in a constant state of mopery, Javier joins a fantastically ragtag circus and wins the role of the Sad Clown. Within moments of arrival, he gazes upwards at Natalia (the ever-so-aptly named Carolina Bang), the troupe's fetching sex-bomb of an aerialist, and is forever smitten. Unfortunately, as he soon learns, she's in thrall to Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), the "Happy Clown." Sans makeup, Sergio is a short-tempered bully who—in a booze-sodden outburst at dinner—beats and kicks Natalia to a black-and-blue pulp. Javier is horrified. But when the camera gazes back her, crumpled on the floor, Natalia flicks out her snake-like tongue and catches a splash of her own blood on the tip, savoring it like honey. Later, after an effort to console her, Javier finds himself hiding in the shadows as Sergio seizes her for a bout of highly consensual and loudly violent sex. Como se dice "bizarre love triangle"?

The Last Circus

De la Iglesia has such wicked fun with the circus scenario—juxtaposing its gaily garish primal colors with gothic sequences of the most mad and abysmal degradation and horror—that it would be criminal to get too explicit with what, all so inevitably, happens next. Everything from allusions to Frankenstein to some kind of drug-frenzied Troma trope (Okay: a clown in Pagliacci drag armed with a machine gun assaulting a fast food franchise as a sad love ballad spins on a jukebox... happy now?) to an all-too-brief nightclub moment out of a Tarantino wet dream keeps popping onto the screen. As the story breathlessly moves ahead, its rivals behave like cartoon characters whom not even an atomic blast can destroy. They suffer like penitents the mortification of their flesh so that they might aspire to the sublime (which would be Miss Bang's department).

The Last Circus

Amid the mayhem, staged with a keen appreciation for Spain's surrealist and gothic traditions and ratcheted up to an absinthe delirium, there's an allegory for the nation's fractured body politic—torn between the oppressive Franco and the democratic ideal. De la Iglesia thankfully doesn't belabor the point. There's only enough such framework to give some historical spark to this go-kart ride to hell, in which both male rivals are transformed into literal and figurative monsters as they profess love for a woman who seems, overall, to be rather stupendously fickle—a candy-apple avatar of va-vooming desire. This roaring psychodrama reaches its tragic spiraling climax at the pinnacle of the world's tallest cross, above the Valley of the Fallen, a Madrid memorial site where 40,000 Spanish Civil War dead are entombed. It's a helluva finale, and when it's over, The Last Circus brings epic new meaning to Smokey Robinson's line about the tears of a clown.

Posted by ahillis at 9:50 AM

August 16, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Killing

by Vadim Rizov

The Killing

Often unfairly dismissed as a minor prelude to Stanley Kubrick's work from his attention-demanding antiwar indictment Paths of Glory onwards, 1956's The Killing finds the master imposing Big Direction on Small Ideas. Instead of the headier themes associated with Kubrick—nuclear war, Vietnam, extraterrestrial monoliths—here is an 84-minute noir, adapted from a Lionel White novel by expert nihilist Jim Thompson, confined to the bare minimum of sets and a few street exteriors. The dialogue has Thompson's characteristic mean-spirited tone: when Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor) tells her lover Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) about her meek husband George's (Elisha Cook Jr.) upcoming involvement in a robbery, he scoffs. "That meatball?" Sherry corrects him: "A meatball with gravy."

George has been recruited by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) for a racetrack robbery timed to the minute; narrator Art Gilmore (a veteran TV/radio announcer and voice-over artist who voiced FDR, among others) gives an ironically scrupulous account of the seedy undertakings. The timeline leading up to the heist is shuffled back and forth, sketching out Johnny and his associates' sad lives, most notably henpecked George's remarkably miserable marriage. A monster of open avarice, Sherry pines that she could be less selfish if only she had more comfortable and expensive surroundings. She's an awful nag, but in one of the film's most painful scenes, she confesses she hasn't been easy to live with, convincingly simulating a decent human being's early-morning guilt and resolving to do better. She's still lying.

The Killing

Two curious personas fill out the team: instead of getting a share of the $2 million payday, they're fulfilling set tasks for a flat fee and asking no questions, creating distractions that start with a racial provocation. One is chess player/wrestler Maurice, an unlikely but real-life combination: Kola Kwariani (in his only screen appearance) was a real Georgian émigré who did both professionally. He's introduced at the "Academy of Chess and Checkers," a nod to Kubrick and Kwariani's time spent hanging out in the same New York chess clubs. His role is to distract the racetrack cops with an epic fight. Launching into the bartender with the words "Hey, how about some service, you stupid-looking Irish pig," Maurice begins throwing guards over his shoulder as if in the ring.

The other contracted player is arms dealer Nikki Arane, played by veteran eye-roller/eyebrow-waggler/general scenery-chewer Timothy Carey. His job is to shoot a horse, creating more chaos. To be in place ahead of schedule, he talks his way into a parking lot run by a black attendant (James Edwards). Nikki treats him as an equal, a fellow combat veteran with a leg injury, and the man keeps returning to express his gratitude. When it's time to kill the steed, the gunman tosses out a racial slur without thinking, the quickest no-consequences way to drive the guard away. In a neat twist on the unwritten movie rule that the black guy is always the first to die, here it's the casual racist who succumbs first.

The Killing

Most of the sets are plywood-cheap and bare; Kubrick and cinematographer Lucien Ballard's camera shrewdly and dizzingly races past the walls, turning them into vertical blips. Characters are often shot from disconcerting angles in harsh black-and-white. Veteran bit player Elisha Cook Jr.'s head looks more freakishly outsized than usual, while Carey is framed from below on a shooting range with two arrow signs on either side of his head, suggesting how crazy he is on top of Carey’s unpredictably tic-ridden performance. (At certain points, the heavy-lidded actor looks like he's either about to explode or slip into a heroin stupor.) It's a showy film that's staggering to watch despite its threadbare appearance, grounded by hypnotically offbeat performances at the margins.

Jim Thompson's novels have often been adapted with various degrees of fidelity, but while The Killing originates from another man's fiction, the beady-eyed dialogue and fatalistic tone convey Thompson nearly undiluted. Just before dying, a character laments her sorry life as "a bad joke without a punch line," which could be true of his novels-turned-films like The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me. Thompson had literary ambitions besides writing excellent crime patter, and Kwariani is granted a lengthy, unprompted speech about how life demands that men act as "the perfect mediocrity," that artists and cancer are the same thing to society at large, and that the masses root for their heroes to be destroyed at their peak: a classic frustrated-writer rant, delivered with the overlay of an immigrant survivor's authority. The film's title refers both to the robbery's haul and the inevitable violent fallout; the final shot's the only gag that doesn't end in a sudden death. (Run, Hayden's girlfriend tells him. He shrugs: "What's the difference?") The devastating ending is the first fully realized in Kubrick's career, and remains no less striking for its smaller scale than for the masterworks it preceded. In the following year's Paths of Glory, a whole platoon of World War I soldiers are sent to their presumable front-line death at the end; here, the same tragic force is delivered in a single man's quiet surrender to the law.

Posted by ahillis at 1:17 PM

August 12, 2011

LATINBEAT 2011: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

Country Music

Can you hear that lonesome whistle blow? Alejandro does. Rolling into Nashville on a Greyhound bus, he wanders the streets like a dog that's been kicked in the ribs, and shacks up in a cheap motel, nursing an apparent if nameless sorrow with a bottle of Jack Daniels and studying American television, whose endlessly chattering talking heads are only half-comprehensible to him. A lean, lanky Chilean with mutton chops that could serve an Elvis impersonator and a shy, sly way with the ladies, this stranger in a strange land doesn't say much at first. The camera takes the measure of the moment, declining to fill in the obvious blanks in favor of a heightened awareness: the awkwardness of communicating with a desk clerk on the phone in a few snatches of broken English, the swoosh of cars past fast-food joints, the pleasure of stretching out on a bed useful for gathering thoughts.

Country Music The movie is called Country Music, but one of the really appealing things about it is there's hardly any country music in the film. Incidentally, of course: One of the first pieces of advice the itinerant Alejandro Tazo (Pablo Cerda) receives is to visit Tootsie's World Famous Orchid Lounge, the fabled honky-tonk on Lower Broadway that's both Music City's most obvious tourist attraction (besides the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry) and gloriously tacky drunk tank. Such discordance could be read as an ironic choice by director Alberto Fuguet, but really it just fits the narrative's slightly dizzy tone. Tazo knows about Johnny Cash, but he's not in Nashville to pay homage. Ambling through the city, taking odd jobs, and often enough parsing the sexual advances of random dudes at the motel and housewives who need help with the plumbing, he's whatever people might want to project on him. Soulful Latin lover or luckless chump? You mean you're not Mexican? "Whatever I say, you're just going to nod," he tells a sympathetic waitress as he explains his recent drama in español. Dumped by an American girlfriend, it seems that he's come cross-country to see what there is to see.

Country Music One of the highlights of this year's 15th annual LatinBeat Film Festival, which runs through August 24 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Country Music changes chords when Tazo moves in with some Nashville slackers. He's the new, curious housemate in a beardo pad that might be the Southern equivalent of those stoner enclaves in Judd Apatow productions, but feels mostly situated in the congenial ennui of a Kentucker Audley ramble. His newfound friends seem to mock Tazo at first. Soon enough, they're pouring him beer and sharing finer details of their sexual habits, bro-ing out with the new hombre even as he sweet-talks their female guests out to the front porch—a stealth mack to the max. That style also describes Fuguet, whose affection for long takes and shots framed at a distance makes for a roomy aesthetic. No rush on a narrative arc. Instead, the film accumulates as a succession of moments that take their poetry from offhanded realism and Cedra's impeccably grounded performance. When Tazo finally picks up a guitar, everything resonates.

The Stoessel Expedition

Back in 1928, two brothers from Buenos Aires—Adan and Andres Stoessel—also came to America. They hit the road in a Chevrolet with the intention of driving all the way to New York City. The dramatic legacy of that reckless adventure is The Stoessel Expedition, a filmed document of the trip shot by the brothers as they made their way with cumbersome camera equipment in a vehicle not exactly suited for the rugged path that lay before them. The footage of their successful arrival in the Big Apple, two years and 15 days later, was stolen. A new restoration, screening Sunday with live piano accompaniment, brings much of the rest of the trek back to light. It's a marvelously antique piece of filmmaking, like watching history unfold through a looking glass, as the epic is condensed into a short hour (with intertitles, no less). Watching it, I kept squinting in hopes of spotting Leonard Zelig riding shotgun.

No Return

Car trouble abounds in No Return. Without giving too much away, it's safe to say that the Argentine thriller revolves around the case of a double hit-and-run accident in which the guilty party—the teenaged son of a successful businessman—attempts to elude discovery while another suspect becomes the target of a police investigation and media lynching. The drama, from Argentine director Marcelo Cohan, takes its time escalating tension, evoking some of Michael Haneke's taut psychological vibe as audience sympathies shift between the characters. The great Federico Luppi (Fase 7, Cronos) plays the bereaved father of the victim, a cyclist who gets whomped while gathering scattered newspapers in front of their apartment building late one night, as two inconsiderate drivers come barreling down the street. Yet, it's his campaign that spells doom for Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a comedian and ventriloquist whose own family life is destroyed, though he is just guilty enough for the courts to make a case. Meanwhile, an otherwise content middle-class family must harbor a dark secret that will definitely come back to haunt it. The twists and turns could almost be premeditated, but Cohan doesn't always offer up what's anticipated. The "eye for an eye" dynamics that energize the third act swerve rewardingly, as do some clever flourishes in the screenplay. No Return may leave you feeling awful inside, but you'll be glad it did.

Posted by ahillis at 1:50 PM

August 9, 2011

Dicks & Dragons

by Vadim Rizov

Your Highness

A decade ago, when David Gordon Green was racking up Terrence Malick comparisons for the mumbled voiceovers and magic-hour fields in his feature debut George Washington, it wasn't obvious that he'd eventually gravitate towards stoner comedies. A clue to his future direction came at the end of his 2003 sophomore film All the Real Girls, a schizoid emo romance that ends with romantic antihero Paul Schneider talking to his dog like an idiot. Clearly, goofy humor strained for release amid all the intense emotions and rapturous landscapes.

Fast-forward to 2008's Pineapple Express, named for a strain of marijuana but mostly dedicated to buzz-harshing sudden jolts of violence that disrupt the intended tribute to the worst (and most endearing) '80s action films. Pineapple is largely visually indifferent, a first for Green and regular cinematographer Tim Orr; appropriate for the retro vibe, but not an eye-pleasing aesthetic. Your Highness is more satisfying all around: the narrative is less stop-start, the pot jokes more inventive. Along with Green's upcoming The Sitter, it's the centerpiece in a loose trilogy that kicks around tropes of shoddy multiplex filler from yesteryear with nostalgic reverence. Recalling the slew of godawful '80s fantasy dreck like Red Sonja, Krull and other two-bit leftovers from the Robert E. Howard universe, the film features various exotic beasties, the vulgar highlight being a five-headed monster controlled by a warlock’s fingers. The heads are hacked off one by one in a gladiatorial pit, only leaving the middle “finger.” Dragons battle dicks for equal screen time—the single entendre dialogue is scrupulously penis-oriented. The MPAA has stringent rules about how phalluses may be depicted on-screen while retaining an R-rating. Suffice to say, a Minotaur’s member doesn’t push the limit.

Your Highness

Your Highness lets you know exactly what kind of movie you're watching about 15 minutes in, when brave prince Fabious (James Franco) and his decidedly less heroic brother Thadeous (Danny McBride) visit the Great Wise Wizard, a repugnant reptilian straight out of Jim Henson's nightmares. The Wizard offers a toke on his pipe to give them visions and wisdom, then asks to be jerked off. The gags are all like this: unabashedly juvenile on a grand fantasy scale, amping up the homoeroticism so that the sheer crudeness becomes the punch line. There's a quest to rescue a damsel in distress (Zooey Deschanel), a hot female warrior, an evil wizard, and all the other trappings; you could sketch the plot arc without seeing a single minute. But hey, dick jokes!

Socially serious-minded critics often like to point out that the male protagonists in Knocked Up, Superbad, et al. exhibit much stronger camaraderie with each other than with any women drifting in, who often seem to be occupying an entirely different planet. As subtext goes, it's right there on the surface, but not incisive enough to be more than a one-note thesis. Green (who worked with Apatow on Pineapple Express) responds with a relentless blitz of gags on the topic, and hardly a minute goes by without a cock appearing somewhere, or someone offering to "suck" poison out, or Franco and McBride acting like a peevish couple. At the climax (snicker!), the bros high-five and congratulate each other on feats of swordsmanship, exasperating their fierce warrior companion Isabel (Natalie Portman), who invites the two "ladies" to help her kill all the baddies whenever they're done making out.

Your Highness

Green stages the big fight scenes coherently and excitingly, proving surprising acumen as an action film technician. One stagecoach chase alone is logistically tighter than a romp this ridiculous deserves. The film was shot in Scotland, and Orr has the helicopter shots to prove it. Against this cleanly filmed landscape (and effectively creepy monsters), Green and his game cast make a travesty of every fantasy cliché they can brainstorm. What stops it all from being too offensive or exhausting in its relentless juvenility is its good-humored vibe: like John Landis' enthusiastically crude comedies (The Blues Brothers, Animal House), Your Highness values amiability over cohesion.

Your Highness

Green's hardly the only contemporary indie mainstay to replicate and fetishize a formerly disreputable genre with the same artful attention Todd Haynes devoted to copying 8 ½ in I'm Not There; a couple years ago, Ti West perfectly recaptured the retro slasher with The House of the Devil. But West's reimagining was richer than the films it impersonated, and Your Highness is definitely better than, say, The Beastmaster, even when playing straight. '80s nostalgia has been permeating music in recent years, with electronic drum pads and vocoders returning with a vengeance, only applied correctly: rather than slathering artificially booming drums and tinny synthesizers over everything, musicians have figured out how to use specific sounds strategically rather than indiscriminately. Your Highness pulls the same trick by putting standard devices to work with a degree of craft its sources never pulled off. It’s the best possible phallus-oriented, swords-and-sorcery rescue quest movie on record, and to sell that as mainstream fare takes, well, balls.

Posted by ahillis at 8:38 AM

August 3, 2011

Trees of Life

by Vadim Rizov

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The first image in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is surprising for what it lacks, and we're not talking about F/X innovations or original ideas: it's a simple helicopter shot of a jungle, followed by dissolves closer to the forest floor. It's a recognizably green and sunny forest—not a mess of computer foliage, color-corrected to some sickly monochrome with digital haze floating around it. For a movie that relies heavily on unnatural-looking CGI animals (you get used to it fast), director Rupert Wyatt's new entry in the four-decades-and-running franchise scorns the fuzzy fake landscapes of Hollywood's loudest movies; much of the time, we're obviously looking at real buildings and locations, which balances out the chimp fakery. Two cars on fire are as real as metal and gasoline at the climax, and it's positively retro.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

What the film offers most is a barrel of rampaging monkeys. Rise takes a full 75 minutes to let the apes out of their cages, a wind-up full of tense anticipation: when exactly will adorable lil' Caesar (movements, predictably, modeled by Andy "Gollum/King Kong" Serkis) realize people are his future servants, not his inevitable tormenters? His lust for free will is the inevitably wayward byproduct of scientist Will Rodman's (James Franco) research. Tortured by the overacting of John Lithgow, who mugs his way through the part of Will's Alzheimer's-ravaged dad (appalled gasps greeted his appearance), Rodman's been straining to find a cure, and thinks injection "A-112" is the answer. An initial presentation of the first successful test subject ("Bright Eyes," Charlton Heston's name in 1968's original Planet of the Apes) falls apart when the ape goes ape; boss Steve (David Oyelowo) orders simian genocide lest the rage contaminate others. But Will can't bring himself to kill baby Caesar, and brings him home, at which point you'll begin guessing how long it takes for the rascal to throttle the rude next-door neighbor.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The problem with Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes was that it had no subtext, settling instead into a conventional war movie. Graphically enhanced or not, mean-spirited monkeys gave speeches and rode horses with no motivating urge. The early Apes films worked through a cluster of ugly racial issues; Michael Atkinson has described fourth installment Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (whose plot this reboot most resembles) as the only movie ever to "climax with a successful, implicitly global armed slave revolt," one in which primates meet flamethrowers in moments that are "futuristically hyperbolic and ringing of Eisenhower-era Alabama." This new Rise has zero interest in racial issues, though it keeps the signifiers. The monkeys are hosed down and can't march in solidarity without a row of cops on horses brandishing nightsticks. Their grievances seem reasonable: they just want to get from urban San Francisco to the Muir Woods redwood forest (where Jimmy Stewart took Kim Novak in Vertigo) without being hassled by the cops. They don't even strike back for the most part, although they'll demolish some cars and kill the malevolent authority figures first. It's the big pharmaceutical companies they object to, with their reckless greed and willingness to peddle shifty medications first, pay settlements later. Down with systemic oppression and economic marginalization!

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

However, such poo-flinging references are tongue-in-cheek rather than pointed. (Especially with the racial imagery, this is curiously offensive. Maybe it's trivializing, but why can't a summer blockbuster acknowledge history in another way than a nudge to the ribs, with Cliff's Notes explanations for every citation?) Rise decides it doesn't really need resonance or grown-up subtext. It has something better: digitally rendered monkeys that can move really fast. When the chimps make a run for the woods, they move at velociraptor speed. The '60s and '70s didn't have such technology and relied on profundity, but Rise doesn't need ideas. For half the running time, there's no meaningful dialogue, just "ooh-ooh-ee" grunting and subsequent human variations on "Oh, shit!" Steve warns Will not to get too emotionally involved in his research since investors want results, not feelings. The metaphor applies to the movie—it's mostly mechanical, honed on results rather than motivations—but it makes for good craft, and the chases rule. When mankind has to take center stage, it's superfluous. Will has a love interest, Caroline the vet (Freida Pinto), who has about ten lines to say; they meet cute after Caesar signs that Will should ask her out, she moves in, and at the climax she gives him a quick peck on the mouth before he runs, constituting the sum total of their relationship. People have been treated with such indifference throughout, so why shoehorn in "character development" for five seconds?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Still, given the unlikelihood of a Planet of the Apes movie that eliminates humans almost entirely except as seen from apekind's POV (which would be awesome), this is as good as it's going to get. The least groan-inducing scenes don't need people to speak, just primates conniving: the way Caesar calculatedly uses instinctive dominance rituals to become commander-in-chief is at least as riveting as 2009's A Prophet, in which an Arab prisoner rises to the top of the French prison system through guile and careful observance of how the Corsicans rule the jail, beating them with their own customs. Apes is more succinct about it, and has the novelty of animals rather than movie gangsters enacting its bog-standard plot. Their escape from captivity is a riveting jailbreak, from their ominous glowering to the sudden rush at cruel animal keepers, perfectly planned and executed. Caesar and his companions are more expressive than the actors, a decision implicitly acknowledged in the film's ditching of dialogue: if you can't write good banter for figurehead action heroes who serve as expository props, don't bother. Instead, there's well-planned revolution (they're definitely smarter than a 4th grader) and vigorous, swooping action—the chimps that make the Golden Gate Bridge their swing set are more convincing than Peter Parker's skyscraping acrobatics on the other coast. Rise is suspenseful, cleanly framed and entertainingly kinetic, even if it's nothing more than sound, fury and monkeying around.

Posted by ahillis at 1:52 PM